Barbara Berman’s 2020 Holiday Poetry Shout-Out


In keeping with Rumpus tradition, Barbara Berman reviews four new collections of poetry and books on poetics that would be perfect for any reader on your holiday shopping list—or for yourself. And remember, you can always buy the poetry-lover in your life a subscription to The Rumpus’s very own Poetry Book Club! We offer 6-month and monthly subscriptions, and each gift subscription comes with a certificate you can print out and put under the tree—and makes a perfect last-minute gift! – Ed.


Little Black Train by Jordan Smith (Three Mile Harbor Press, March 2020)

Little Black Train by Jordan Smith is a smoothly crafted ride. “Fuck” opens with a wonderfully apt epigraph attributed to Adrian Frazer: In Ireland, “fuck” is like a comma.” Smith’s speaker is watching the news, and thinking about “a private part of life, if much anticipated.”

And not a noun, either, as in Miller, Mailer,
Subject and object conflated, pronounced
After celebratory inhalation,
Like satisfaction after a long, surly deprivation,
And so preening, ungrateful, the vowel clipped
Short of surprise or pleasure, mere consonance

The news, “Dulled by repetition” is “quick and dirty, said and done.” And in this case, expertly. What Smith consistently delivers is acknowledgment of where interior musing and desire are unavoidably interrupted by the task of being an informed citizen.

Smith teaches English at Union College, and his work has appeared in Salmagundi, The Free State Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. In another poem, “8 Yardman,” Smith’s speaker is outdoors and “[s]uddenly breaking clear, a creek between reeds and beds of bell-shaped marsh flowers, all of which must be meant.” The speaker been listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2, and its powerful geometric melodies remind him that if he wants “a self perfect enough for this music, then so much for the failures I find so endearing.” This contradiction is the core of the finest reader/writer engagement.

The collection’s title poem is another high wire act of contradiction: “The shock of wind and metal, whatever couldn’t be stopped, / not for anything, / When I wasn’t going anywhere at all.” Except the speaker is moving, forward and backward with authentic grace, as in “With a Glass of Finger Lakes Red,” which takes him to an afternoon on a sailboat, when he’s ten years old. The use of third-person rescues the tone from self-indulgence too often present in poems of reverie: “Sleepy, the boy lets the jib sheet fall, / The canvas luff, feels the hull stall / Until she takes both sails in hand, / Course set, no hurry, back toward land.” The speaker’s mother is at the tiller, and every element named is an evocation of place that endures, as all the compositions in this collection do so well.


The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali (Alice James Books, October 2020)

“I sing the body electric,” Whitman famously wrote, and Kazim Ali, in The Voice of Sheila Chandra, sets the body on fire. The collection is titled for a singer of Indian descent who was left voiceless by a devastating medical condition. Ali, who was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents, now teaches at Oberlin College, and his work is packed with knowledge without being didactic.

“Qureshi paints another little red flower down do he pray that history may be replaced by beauty.” This line comes from a long, magnificent piece called “Hesperine for David Berger,” a poem with compelling and wide range. Earlier in the piece, Ali connects a steel sculpture in the Midwest to “the bullet-written history of the burning helicopter toward the open sky.” Ali has a fine ear, which makes me suspect he selected “written” in part because its sound is a close relative of “ridden.”

The title poem here is as strong as its companions:

Sheila Chandra sings without words
Because a word is a form of rage at
Death the implicit formlessness
Of the body which translates as
The soul does not cohere every
Feeling of a body as moral means
Separately French mot and mort
What do we know and can’t tell.

Although Chandra has been forced to “sing without words,” her voice is now as unmuted as possible, thanks to Ali.

Toward the close of this poem, Ali writes: “The chords in the box the mouth / Throat third voice sought / Dew nawt reign in rain my hands / Hand me the rain will you sing can / You swing your votes vox fox / In the howza I learned scripture.”

Sheila Chandra has a gifted champion in this extraordinary volume.


Natch by Sophia Dahlin (City Lights, September 2020)

It takes inner grit, discipline, and raw talent to write poems that are unerringly beautiful without being twee, and Sophia Dahlin delivers beautiful, tactile motion in Natch. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Lambda Literary, Denver Quarterly, Berkeley Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

“Ponder the Lily” suggests that Denise Levertov is nodding with approval: “Lilypads, how do they touch us, slimy? we like them speaking about the surfaces, / the sunlight either to build a catch / to see the pond floor pass.”

It’s a privilege to dive into this poem, and others in Natch, like “I’m what now,” another gem with the word “lily,” which declares,

I don’t need to be healthy, but I like
the smell of health, c’mere,
I’ll put my nose in your lily neck
now how lucky for how long.

There’s a controlled delirium here, and it’s deliciously sexy.

In “Foci, Foci,” Dahlin is again both graceful and direct. “I don’t even know what to do/ when I’m not drawing your face.” Later in the poem the speaker exhibits hard-won wisdom: “I go rooting up / softness from exes,” a tender reminder that we always approach the new with what we carry from the past.

Natch has a precocious wisdom and a promise of more to come from this brave young writer.


French Guiana: Memory Traces from the Penal Colony by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Matt Reeck (Wesleyan University Press, March 2020)

Poetry has many siblings, and as Claudia Rankine and others have shown so eloquently, photography is one of them. Translated by Matt Reeck, French Guiana: Memory Traces from the Penal Colony is a stunning, essential reissue of work by Patrick Chamoiseau, with photographs by Rodolphe Hammadi. The brisk introduction by Charles Forsdick notes that the French, like many of us in the dominant group of a colonialist culture, are professionals at forgetting the worst that our states have committed:

Our Monuments remain like suffering.
They bear witness to suffering.
They preserve suffering.

This text faces a photograph of a small, battered cross, with a rusted neck lock and chain in the foreground. Two forms merge here with “prose” on the same page that lists, among other reminders of travesty, sugar cane slavery and military occupation.

Chamoiseau coins the phrase “the law of sedimentary memory,” an essential term that has contemporary resonance, especially when considered with the words that soon follow: “The prison at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. The walls there are pale, terrible, scarred by humidity.” This is impossible to separate from what is done to prisoners here in our own country and elsewhere.

Chamoiseau notes that “[a]n encrustation of rust makes a second skin.” This is a few pages from a photograph of a tiny window, the walls surrounding it a variety of colors declaring decay. There are more photographs in the last pages of the volume, each serving as a mirror for words and as another reminder that humans were here, treated inhumanely. It is, of course, humanity’s task to be better than our past misdeeds, and the artist’s challenge is to aid in this undertaking. Everyone who contributed to the making of this book deserves credit for taking this challenge seriously.


Author’s note: I’m immensely grateful to everyone at Team Rumpus for bringing my reviews to this audience over the last decade. For the foreseeable future, this is the last review I will write for The Rumpus. I will be focusing on two book projects and on managing some health challenges. From time to time, on my Facebook page, I will share Rumpus reviews from the past eleven years. Thank you to the writers, publishers, editors, booksellers, and especially to the readers.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →